Welcome to the Character Column! Each week, I’ll be taking a look at a different character from Nintendo’s long and esteemed history, and I’ll analyze what makes them interesting, nuanced, or just plain memorable. Whether they’re heroes, villains or NPCs, I’ll explain why they deserve respect or love from the fanbase and a place in video game history.
Last week we covered the Duck Hunt Dog, a canine of infamous reputation. And this week, we’re pulling out all the stops and covering not only one of the greatest characters in Nintendo’s catalogue, but one of the finest in the entire medium: Metroid’s sterling space bounty hunter, Samus Aran.
There’s a reason why Samus is one of the most highly revered figures in gaming, and its most widely respected heroine. She’s strong, competent and full of mystery, which – coupled with her 30 years of history – gives her a great legacy as one of Nintendo’s finest. There’s a reason many have been upset with some of her recent portrayals, and that’s what we’ll delve into today: Samus’ significance and how she’s been characterized over the years. Yes, we’ll be talking about Other M. It may not be pretty.
Gaming’s first heroine
“First” as in foremost, because there’s no one more appreciated and recognized. Technically speaking, Samus was far from the first female protagonist in a game (that was Lady Bug, from the game of the same name) nor the first woman hero (that was Papri from Girl’s Garden). In fact, she’s not even the first menacing empowered space-armored female warrior whose identity was revealed only at the end of the game – that honor falls to Baraduke’s Toby “Kissy” Masuyo, who came over a year earlier.
Even so, Samus’ first appearance was one of the most impactful, likely due to the fact that such an inhuman, unstoppable warrior was revealed as a woman – a huge plot twist at the time (especially since the game’s manual said she was a male cyborg). According to legend, her gender was something tossed in near the last minute, suggested by one of the developers randomly during work, that everybody agreed would be a neat idea. Her design was primarily inspired by Ellen Ripley of Alien (Ridley received his name from the same movie’s director), and it’s not difficult to see the parallel between the two.
What set Samus apart then – and still does now – is the fact that she’s incredibly unique. Many female heroes of the time were either dainty magic princesses or sexualized fighters, so her appearance as a space warrior was rather uncommon. There are of course other power-armored soldiers in gaming (Master Chief comes to mind), but Samus was the first, and likely the best.
The hunter’s shroud
Samus’ origins and past are the point of some debate. No game has really showed them in full detail, so many rely on supplementary materials of varying quality, such as the Metroid manga, to figure out her beginnings. While it’s difficult to establish one hard canon, it is possible to glean the most important bits of information.
Samus was born on Earth colony K-2L, but her youth was cut short by the arrival of Space Pirates led by the nefarious Ridley. Samus’ parents – and her entire life – were torn apart in a flash, and she was barely able to escape to the planet Zebes. There she was raised by the Chozo, a race of space-bird people, who infused her DNA with some of their genetics and offered her one of their ancient weapons – the Power Suit. After another Space Pirate attack, however, the Chozo too were left in ruins, and Samus’ family was destroyed for a second time. The series proper begins afterwards, where she’s contracted to destroy the Space Pirate base on Zebes, along with Mother Brain and the Metroids that the Pirates have collected.
Much of Samus’ life is shrouded in mystery, which extends to the game’s universe as well. In the Prime series, there are a number of logs which show others’ thoughts on her. One Federation log in Prime 2 is incredulous at her supposed accomplishments, likening her existence to that of Santa Claus and Bigfoot. Ones written by the Chozo and the Luminoth describe her as some sort of “Chosen One.” But most interesting are those written by Space Pirates, which describe her by a simple, menacing title – “The Hunter.” One who could annihilate all of their operations and plans without any warning. It’s illuminating to see how outright terrifying Samus is to her enemies, and how they live in quaking fear that she may bust in at any moment and foil their plots.
Samus is perhaps one of the few characters I can think of who works well with less details. The lack of concrete information with regards to many parts of her character – even her exact origin – reflects the in-universe depiction of her as a figure shrouded in history. Even after Other M attempted (attempted) to give her a more fleshed out backstory, it left much to the player’s imagination and speculation. Samus’ mystique is a key part of her character, one that is representative of the franchise’s signature vibe of unknown and alien environments.
If Samus were to be described in one word, it would be “formidable.” She’s destroyed three planets (Zebes, Phaze and SR 3888) and one entire dimension (Dark Aether) without so much as breaking a sweat, not to mention committed xenocide against an entire species minus one (Metroids). Her log entries throughout the Prime games also show her to be a scientific genius versed in physics, biology and more, not to mention the fact that she builds her own gunships. Her other acts of daunting toughness – being the only one to resist total Phazon corruption in Prime 3, infiltrating a Space Pirate vessel without her suit in Zero Mission, and standing toe to toe with a perfect copy of herself in Fusion – only add to the image of her as a force of nature.
Samus is also (usually) rather quiet, almost never speaking and generally only delivering a short monologue or two. The first two Metroids don’t have her speak at all, while Super has but a brief opening exposition. Prime has three whole games of no spoken voice acting, even in Prime 3 where she regularly interacts with several characters. Of the pre-Other M titles, Fusion is probably where she’s chattiest, pondering to herself on multiple elevator rides and even having a conversation with her computer CO near the end. Most of the time, however, Samus’ characterization is given non-verbally, usually to great effect.
While she may be a nigh-unstoppable juggernaut of pure war, Samus does have her share of humanizing moments. In II and Super, she clearly grows an attachment to the baby Metroid before it meets its untimely fate, and she’s left to obliterate Mother Brain in return. In Fusion, she fondly, yet dryly remembers her old CO Adam Malkovich, and is clearly pleased to find out he’s “alive” by the end. Zero Mission has her find an old childhood drawing of her with her Chozo parents, right before she’s confronted with a trial to receive the “true” power suit. Prime 3 shows her lamenting the corruption and deaths of her fellow bounty hunters, as well as her anger towards Dark Samus for causing them. My favorite may be the end of Prime 1 – looking at the crumbling Chozo ruins around her with a subdued emotion in her face, as if contemplating the destruction she’s left in her wake.
Samus may be a mighty warrior, but she’s not a robot. She has flashes of emotion – moderated, perhaps even repressed emotion, but still present nonetheless. She’s not one to offer grand soliloquies or treatises on morality, but it’s clear she’s lived a hard life, and manages to express that in the few moments we see her outside of the suit. Few could live sanely through such hellish beginnings, but Samus emerged a legend, able to blast her foes and still feel emotion through all of it.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room…
Let me start by saying this: Other M was not a bad game. Its gameplay did a serviceable job translating 2D Metroid into a third person 3D style, and it still has plenty of good environments and upgrades that make fighting enemies fun.
The story is… another matter.
It’s clear what the intention was – to offer Samus a more concrete backstory and humanize her by giving her some flaws. But as we’ve seen Samus didn’t need either of these things – the obscurity of her past was an advantage, not a detriment, and she had plenty of human moments already. But this apparently was not the opinion of the developers, and as a result what we got was… well, Other M.
Other M Samus doesn’t really come across as tough or formidable – instead, she’s a poor mixture of emotionless stoicness and childlike petulance. Bad voice direction and writing – coupled with a deluge of dry and monotonous monologues – make Samus seem like a woman who can’t let go of the past, one who had trouble simply keeping all of her emotions together, and somebody who lacks much of the strength and willpower she had displayed in previous titles. This is to say nothing of scenes that are blatantly out of character, such as her reaction to seeing Ridley again. (I could probably write a whole other piece on everything wrong with that point.)
Some of her changes were of a more subtle sort, such as her character design. Material released around the time of Super Metroid put Samus at an amazonian 6’3” tall, with a very pronounced musculature. It was clear that she was strong both in and out of her suit, and the end slates in games like Zero Mission supported this. Prime 3 also had her stand at or above most of the Federation soldiers she encountered. But in Other M she’s shrunk to become shorter than all of her cohorts, and her frame is now slender instead of built. Not to mention her Zero Suit now has high heels when in Zero Mission they were actively discouraged.
Those changes, on their own, wouldn’t mean much, but coupled with Samus’ characterization in-game, they seem to intentionally weaken her character. And I don’t mean weaken in a physical sense – I mean the fact that Other M makes Samus’ character less cool, less competent, and, perhaps most criminally, less intriguing. If the game had given her a more realistic set of flaws while also playing into traits that she had previously, it would have enhanced her character, showing her humanity while also retaining her great aptitude. Instead, all of her strengths have been blown away and replaced with a shaky mess who can’t seem to have anything together.
Now, Other M’s plot isn’t full of completely awful points (the one non-awful point is coincidentally named “Anthony Higgs”), but it’s problematic to say the least. We could probably stay here all day ranting about all the issues, but when it comes to Samus, there’s one fundamental issue: that the writers sacrificed mystique and strength for humanization and details, and it didn’t work. Samus doesn’t come across as a wounded warrior dealing with serious and troubling psychological issues – she’s instead depicted as a fractious brat who can’t cope with loss, even though she’s been dealing with it her entire life. Normally, I try to justify whenever characters are depicted as weak or incompetent when it makes sense, but in the case of Samus, it contradicts what her character stands for.
The Chozo’s legacy
Regardless of Other M’s problems, Samus continues to be an icon of gaming as a whole. One poorly constructed narrative can’t entirely soil 25 previous years of grit, and Samus manages to endure despite it all. While many are disappointed at her lack of a starring role in Federation Force, I’m optimistic that The Hunter will return once more, to vanquish her foes and restore peace to the galaxy.
Samus really is one-of-a-kind. Everything about her, from her design, to her deeds, to her characterization, manages to stand on its own. She’s not just one of the best characters that Nintendo has; she’s one of the greatest characters in gaming, and her legacy will continue to last, so long as people remember the greatness of her adventures.
That’s all for this week’s Character Column! It was an impassioned piece, but I felt very strongly about one of my most beloved characters since childhood. Tune in next time, where we’ll be talking about another of my favorites – the Heir to the Monado. Until then!
“In the vast universe, the history of humanity is but a flash of light from a lone star. The life of a single person should be lost in space and time. But among the stars, there is one light that burns brighter than all others. The light of Samus Aran. Her battles extend beyond her life, and etch themselves into history.”
– Metroid Prime Introduction
Looking for more Metroid? Check out our Metroid Memories miniseries, a collection showing appreciation for various Metroid titles in celebration of Metroid’s 30th anniversary.
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